San Francisco 49ers

On 49ers: Go big in free agency? Team has no choice

49ers have spent free-agent money cautiously

After finishing with a 5-11 record in 2015, the 49ers need to fill numerous holes to improve the team. But while many teams will be aggressive to sign free agents, the 49ers will be cautious in how they spend their money. Bee staff writer Matt Bar
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After finishing with a 5-11 record in 2015, the 49ers need to fill numerous holes to improve the team. But while many teams will be aggressive to sign free agents, the 49ers will be cautious in how they spend their money. Bee staff writer Matt Bar

The Raiders began free agency by barging through the saloon doors with guns a blazin’.

They already have a deal in principle, according to multiple reports, with Kelechi Osemele, one that will be signed shortly after free agency begins at 1 p.m. Wednesday and make him the league’s highest-paid guard.

They’re also reportedly nearing a deal with Seattle Seahawks pass rusher Bruce Irvin and pursuing both the top free-agent cornerback, Sean Smith, and the best running back available, Doug Martin. In addition, they’re one of the teams interested in Sacramento native Akiem Hicks, a defensive lineman.

The 49ers, meanwhile, appear to have their guns buckled in their holsters.

That’s not entirely surprising. San Francisco general manager Trent Baalke usually is quiet early in free agency. He’d rather sift through the bargain bin after the free-spending squads have emptied their wallets.

Of the five teams that spent the most money during free agency in 2015, only one – the New York Jets – finished with a winning record.

That prudence served him well when the 49ers had one of the best-stocked rosters in the league in recent years.

But the 49ers, in case you haven’t noticed, are no longer a talented team. They finished with five wins last season and their roster looks as if it’s been ravaged by moths. Rather than list the positions with holes, it’s easier to list the ones that appear set: safety, punter and perhaps – given new coach Chip Kelly’s predilection for three-wide receiver sets – tight end.

More importantly, the 49ers must signal to their increasingly fed-up fans that they are trying to improve the team.

The Jacksonville Jaguars are sending that message. They have the most salary cap space, $82 million, and already reportedly have wrapped up a deal with coveted defensive lineman Malik Jackson. They also are zeroing on the best pass rushers in free agency, a group that includes the Miami Dolphins’ Olivier Vernon.

The Raiders have $60 million in cap space, third most in the league, and are aggressively using it.

The 49ers? They have approximately $62 million, second most in the league, and … well, we’ll have to wait and see what they do. They certainly weren’t making waves in the 48-hour run-up to free agency. And this is a team that desperately needs offseason excitement.

The Super Bowl, for instance, had to have left the 49ers with mixed emotions. Levi’s Stadium not only looked good in the spotlight, it sounded good, too. It proved that when the stadium is full of engaged fans – Denver Broncos backers were out in force Feb. 7 – there can be true energy and a real home-field advantage.

The 49ers, however, have yet to experience that. The stadium never seems loud because it’s rarely full. It certainly wasn’t toward the end of last season when perhaps half the ticket holders were no-shows.

Free agency alone, of course, won’t refill Levi’s and make the 49ers better. The open market usually produces more cautionary tales than touchdowns.

Of the five teams that spent the most money during free agency in 2015, for example, only one – the New York Jets – finished with a winning record. According to Arizona Cardinals reporter Mike Jurecki, of the 86 players chosen for the most recent Pro Bowl, only two – Arizona guard Mike Iupati (who was signed away from the 49ers) and Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis – were free-agent acquisitions last year.

But sometimes you have to play the game.

Like Baalke, former 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan was wary of free agency, preferring to rebuild the team through the draft. McCloughan, however, was an aggressive shopper at times.

Did it always work out? No. He overspent in 2007 for cornerback Nate Clements. But the next year, he struck gold with lineman Justin Smith, one of the cornerstones of the 49ers’ excellent defenses from 2011-14.

The 49ers won seven games in 2006. They won five games in 2007. Which is to say, they’re in the same spot they were a decade ago when McCloughan was running the team.

They may prefer not to spend top dollar in free agency. But when you’re as bad as they are and have as much salary cap space as they do, is there any other choice?

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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